SAN ANTONIO – MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) paid tribute on Friday to three Latino leaders who have dedicated their careers to sharing the culture of and protecting the rights of the Latino community.

“At a time when the far right is regularly attempting to sow divisions within the Latino community, as well as to split us from allied communities, our coming together, literally and figuratively, is so critically important,” said MALDEF President and General Counsel Thomas A. Saenz.  “Inspiring leaders like our honorees help to show us the paths to community advancement while strengthening our unity and coalition with allies.”

U.S. Representative Greg Casar was honored with the Excellence in Government Service Award for his efforts to strengthen workers’ rights, expand immigrant rights, and protect voting rights. Sworn into office in January 2023, Casar has been instrumental in creating heat protection standards for federal employees, such as postal service workers and others. In 2018, as an Austin City Councilman, Casar helped pass paid sick leave ordinances in Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio. He also pushed for measures that protect renters from abusive policies by corporate landlords, and for affordable housing programs.

“MALDEF is the leading voice for Latino civil rights in the U.S., and I’m deeply honored to receive the Excellence in Government Service Award,” said Congressman Casar. “Our work is far from over. While extremist officials attack our basic rights, it’s more important than ever that we come together to celebrate our collective accomplishments and prepare for the fight ahead.”

Texas State Representative Victoria Neave Criado also received the Excellence in Government Service Award. Criado was elected to the statehouse in 2016 and has spent her three terms looking out for the rights of survivors of sexual assault and others. She was co-author of a 2019 omnibus sexual assault reform bill that required the state to process a decades-old backlog of rape kits, which numbered in the thousands. The Lavinia Masters Act also implemented a time frame for the processing of rape kits and prohibits their destruction until the statute of limitations runs out. In 2022, she was elected to serve as Chair of the Texas Mexican American Legislative Caucus (MALC), the largest and oldest Latino caucus in the country, becoming the first woman elected to that position in thirty years.

“Since the founding of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus fifty years ago this year, our most powerful partner has always been MALDEF,” said Representative Neave Criado. “Since the 1970s, we have locked arms to protect voting rights for Latinos from the Texas House to the courthouse.  Today marks a full circle continuation of our partnership to secure and protect the civil rights of our Latino constituency. I’m incredibly honored to receive such a distinguished recognition as the Excellence in Government Service Award.”

Finally, MALDEF celebrated the life and work of the late “Mother of Mariachi,” Isabel “Belle” San Miguel Ortiz with a Lifetime Achievement, Excellence in the Arts Award. A San Antonio native and talented musician, Ortiz helped to develop cultural arts and Mariachi curriculum that is taught in schools today. Along with her husband, Juan Ortiz, she co-founded Mariachi Campanas de America. The Grammy award-winning ensemble played at the Kennedy Center for the Performing arts and at the White House. Ortiz also worked to foster collaboration and growth in mariachi music education by founding the Texas Association of Mariachi Educators. Early in her career, Ortiz taught music in schools and inspired countless young people to study music. Combined with her later career and advocacy, she left an indelible mark on San Antonio and beyond. Ortiz died this July at age 90.

“Our Mamacita, ‘Belle’, shattered barriers for the Mexican American community by utilizing the arts,” said Ortiz’s daughter, Leticia Van de Putte. “She was a pioneer in bringing Mariachi music to public school students throughout the country. She expanded the cultural arts programs of major colleges and universities, bringing La Música Mexicana into course offerings.”

The event was emceed by KENS 5 evening news anchor Isis Romero.

MALDEF recognizes the significant contributions of these outstanding leaders and their dedication to advancing civil rights for all. The event draws notable government and community leaders from around the nation.